Category Archives: William Corcoran

The Corcoran Gallery of Art

The Corcoran Gallery of Art

I wouldn’t read much into it, it’s progress knock it down, it’s the Last Bookstore in Town
Graham Parker

Learning and writing about Art and History are my serious hobbies. In fact, my main credential for writing this piece is that, like many other people, I am an avid museum goer and also a frequent tourist of Washington D.C. So when I read that the present plan concerning the Corcoran Gallery of Art is described as an act that would have been frowned on by William Corcoran, I could not help but to recoil. This allegation seems to ignore the basic facts of the situation as I understand them. While any change affecting any great institution is sad, my gut tells me that maybe this one is for the best.

I studied the life and times of William Corcoran and the beginnings of the Smithsonian Institution for three pieces I wrote, all of which now appear on this website  ( Dedicated To Art;Why Jackie Kennedy Saved the Renwick at http://idiscoveredamerica.com/?p=33); The Smithsonian Castle: An Allegory at http://idiscoveredamerica.com/?p=41 and Follow the Money- The Legacy Perhaps of James Smithson at http://idiscoveredamerica.com/?p=94 ). I read Corcoran’s self-published book and cited it. I am familiar with the documents creating  the Corcoran Gallery of Art. In fact, William Corcoran was dead when the present Corcoran Gallery of Art was built, and therefore he could not have any intention as to the present building. As to the art it contains, it seems to me that the plan as I understand it is more of a fulfillment of his wishes than a violation of them.

William Wilson Corcoran (1798-1888) was a dry goods store owner turned banker from Georgetown with untold influence in Washington DC. He made a fortune funding the Mexican American War in 1846-1848.  Although known to be sympathetic to the South in the years leading to the civil war, there is no evidence that Corcoran favored the institution of slavery. The best evidence depicts Corcoran as favoring the continued union of the states through the compromises on slavery and this may have led to his participation in the Mexican-American War. Corcoran was friendly with most powerful people in Washington including Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. In 1846, Corcoran lent his considerable expertise to help build the Smithsonian Castle, a project abhorred by Henry. Joseph Henry wanted the Smithson bequest to fund pure science, but Congress felt that the building of the a large building which would contain a library, museum and art gallery was more in keeping with James Smithson’s unusual alternate residuary bequest “to the united states of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” Henry denounced the Castle as a huge waste of money.

 

William Corcoran loved art and he collected art both for his personal collection and for the nascent Smithsonian Institution. He was probably using his own money for both collections as I have seen no evidence that he received a penny of the bequest monies before buying any art. When he retired from banking as a very wealthy man, Corcoran travelled to Europe with a note of introduction from Joseph Henry, who was becoming well known among scientific circles in Europe due to his groundbreaking scientific work. Corcoran returned from his 1855 trip with the beginnings of the nation’s first collection of art for public display. By this time, Joseph Henry was living in the Castle with his family and he was growing more irritated by the constant disruptions caused by the presence of a library and an art gallery. Corcoran, who lived nearby, kept many of his collected works in his home which, during the mid to late 1850’s, he freely showed to interested parties. As his collection expanded, and perhaps to accommodate Joseph Henry, Corcoran contracted with James Renwick, Jr., the architect of the Castle, to build an Art Gallery near his home. It was to be a structure “Dedicated To Art”, a phrase probably coined by Corcoran, and that was the inscription placed in its façade. This was the birth of the first Corcoran Gallery of Art which is now known as the Renwick Gallery of Art now part of the Smithsonian Institution.

Construction on the art gallery had begun in 1858. It was designed in Second Empire style, a Parisian architectural movement of the time. Although not nearly the size of its Parisian counterpart, the Gallery was dubbed “The American Louvre”, probably as a bit of promotion by Corcoran who showed a grand flair for the artistic and the dramatic. The building was near completion when the civil war broke out in 1861. Corcoran smartly sat out the war by travelling to Europe and his Gallery was taken by the Union Army and used as a supply depot until the war ended. It is unclear what happened to the artwork that Corcoran had collected…where it was stored and if it became further comingled, as obviously art was not the highest priority of the time. We do know that in 1865, the Smithsonian was to have an exhibit of the Native American portraits of John Mix Stanley. Joseph Henry blamed the preparation of that exhibit for the devastating fire of January 1865 which destroyed part of the Smithsonian and countless documents of scientific, historical and cultural significance, including most of the Stanley works and James Smithson’s personal papers. Henry, who never wanted the Castle to be a museum, used the fire as an excuse to jettison the library and the art museum, with many of the Smithsonian art works ultimately ending up in the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Upon returning to Washington after the war, Corcoran moved forward with the idea that an art museum was needed in Washington and in 1869, he deeded the Art Gallery and some of his works to the Trustees of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, an entity he had set up and funded. Although the ownership of specific works in the collection may have been unclear, Corcoran was able to temporarily open the completed Gallery with massive fanfare in 1871. It later began its run as the first art museum in the new country. Corcoran continued collecting art and when he died in 1888 his art collection and that of the Corcoran Gallery proved too large for the building bearing his name. In 1897, a new building was constructed a few blocks away and it not only correctly took the name “Corcoran Gallery of Art” but also again used the inscription “Dedicated To Art” in its façade, as tribute to the vision of its original founder.

The 1869 deed for the first Corcoran Gallery of Art clearly conveys Corcoran’s purpose:

“…in the execution of a long cherished desire to establish an institution in Washington city, to be “dedicated to Art,” and solely used for the purpose of encouraging American genius, in the production and preservation of works pertaining to the “Fine Arts,” and kindred objects…”

Here Corcoran channels the language of the Smithson bequest but leaves no doubt that his building was to be “Dedicated To Art” and not to science or literature, perhaps freeing the Castle from those burdens. Corcoran specifically indicated that admission to the Gallery was to free of charge at least two days per week, a grand gesture of his intent that the inspiration provided by his Gallery might benefit even those who could not afford to pay admission. From the 1870’s to the 1890’s, his vision was fulfilled by the Gallery at Lafayette Square.

If William Wilson Corcoran’s vision was to have great art free and visible and accessible in Washington for the purpose of fostering American genius, he would be well pleased today. Between the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, the Renwick Gallery of Art (currently closed for renovation), The Hirschorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Freer Gallery and the Sackler Gallery, the amount of phenomenal art one can see for free in Washington DC is unbelievable. Other art museums such as the Phillips Collection and, yes, the Corcoran Gallery of Art have contributed to my opinion that Washington DC is the premier city for art viewing in the world (note: as a native New Yorker even I am shocked by this admission; and yes, I have been to Paris and Rome and Florence and Amsterdam…Where is the American Art there?). Only in the National Gallery of Art can you stand in a room with 17 Cezannes…by yourself! I was in a room with more Vermeers than people! A Da Vinci that you don’t need binoculars to see! Don’t get me started on the American Art, from the Copleys to the Warhols…the genius is on display everywhere. And did I mention that most of it is FREE.

If I may digress, the wondrous thing about Washington for art lovers is that most of the tourists who go there, even those who might frequent the art museums of other cities, barely get to all the art museums. Americans and other tourists who have maybe a week to spend in Washington have their itineraries full of other things. Personally, my most poignant moment in visiting Washington was not in a museum, it was on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where at 7 am a small group of tourists presumably from mainland China were admiring our 16thPresident and sharing their thoughts with each other in their native tongue. To my astonishment, one of them stood next to me on the place where Martin Luther King reestablished America’s Creed and as he looked out on the reflecting pool he said in near perfect English “Free at last, Free at last, great God almighty…we are free at last”. In my mind, somehow William Wilson Corcoran with his dedication to something great helped bring Washington to that moment, which still gives me goose bumps and brings a tear to my eye.

All of which brings me to where we are today. For me, ultimately the issue of the Corcoran Gallery is not so much about one man’s vision, it is not about a building and it is not even about art. It is about trust. Since I believe that the National Gallery of Art is the greatest art museum in the world and has helped establish Washington as the greatest city for art in the world, I trust that it will do right by the Corcoran collection.  Others who are against the plan may not share my trust, and perhaps I do not see all that they see or know all that they know.  I can only imagine how difficult it has been for the Corcoran Gallery of Art to function as an independent museum in a town that despite its incredible collections, is not really about art. That is the beauty of the Smithson Bequest and the Corcoran gifts…they have created something much greater than even they could have anticipated in a city that needs great art if only to counter the nonsense that is often associated with some of its other institutions. As times change and politics change and buildings rise and fall, it is the great ideas that move us forward as a civilization. Those ideas may be expressed in our founding documents, the speeches of our great leaders, the advancement in the sciences and in the great art of the world. I trust that this is a move forward and I suspect that William Wilson Corcoran would think so too.

 

Encouraging American Genius

Encouraging American Genius

                                                                                                                By Jerry Leibowitz

 We are stardust, billion year old carbon We are golden, caught in the devil’s bargain And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.

Joni Mitchell

 I have been thinking about what it means to “encourage American Genius” since I wrote my last piece on the Corcoran Gallery of Art (See http://idiscoveredamerica.com/?p=461  ). William Corcoran used the phrase in the deed donating what became the first independent Art Gallery in America in 1869, stating that his gift was:

“…in the execution of a long cherished desire to establish an institution in Washington city, to be “dedicated to Art,” and solely used for the purpose of encouraging American genius, in the production and preservation of works pertaining to the “Fine Arts,” and kindred objects…”

The phrase and the words “Dedicated to Art”, which is displayed on the façade of both the original and the present Corcoran Gallery acquired in 1897, has popped up in the controversy about the future of the present Corcoran Gallery of Art, which seeks to terminate many of its operations. In using the phrase, I see Corcoran as reiterating a strand of American thought that went back at least to 1760, the year that Benjamin West left Pennsylvania to view the great art of Italy, never to return. Despite, or because of, our view of our founding as something inspired by divine intervention, we often fail to see the America that was born of a brutal and barbarous nature, where much of its wealth was extracted from the enslaved to the utter disregard if not the benefit of its founders. Early America was a cultural wasteland which many of the best minds of our early generations chose to leave to pursue their craft. While the civil war did not solve America’s problems, after the war William Corcoran was among those calling for the next America to be better than the last; through art, through culture and through the development and encouragement of American genius.

The cornerstone of the Second America arguably was laid in England in 1791 with a painting by Benjamin West entitled “Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden”. http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/art-object-page.70986.html.  As if by my design, the painting now hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D. C. Obviously, this was a subject that had been covered numerous times before; it is one of the most familiar and iconic images in western thought. Yet, as the NGA website points out…”West’s Expulsion contains two motifs not found in Genesis or any traditional pictures of the theme: an eagle swoops upon a helpless bird, and a lion chases frightened horses. In general terms, such beasts of prey imply the destruction of harmony that resulted from Original Sin.” The eagle became the bird emblem of the United States of America in 1782. Its placement in the work calls to the viewer the America that Benjamin West had left over thirty years before. Perhaps the lion represents the slaveholders and the horses represent their slaves.[i] West, who was a Quaker and was adamantly anti-slavery, had left America as a British citizen and ended up in England where he rose to the highest level of his craft, a friend and Court painter to King George lll. West was not the only American artist who left his native land; he was soon followed by John Singleton Copley, Gilbert Stuart, and John Trumbull all of whom sat out the Revolutionary War in England. They were eventually followed to Europe by virtually every great American artist of the 19th and early 20th century, each of whom studied or lived in Europe for a considerable period of their artistic development. We know a little of why these early American artists left America; Copley called his native country barbarous and limiting to his craft; Trumbull may have been a spy for America, having served as aide-de-camp for George Washington for a short time early in the War; Stuart was a bit scattered and was perhaps looking for some stability abroad. I suggest that Benjamin West invited this community of artists to England to “encourage American genius” in a place removed from America’s original sin, its toleration of slavery. When the smoke from the American Revolution had cleared, Trumbull and Stuart returned to America fully formed as artists giving America its first artistic life, one couched in love for the new country. It was as if Benjamin West sent out these emissaries of art to go forth and multiply and breed American genius. It is likely that Gilbert Stuart, having lived among those who were a part of the antislavery movement while in England[ii], returned to America as an emissary for that movement, often discussing political subjects with those who sat for him. Trumbull went on to document America’s founding, and established the first University Art Gallery at Yale largely to collect his own works. West and Copley stayed in England and continued their artistic pursuits. West’s views against slavery were quite well known and clearly contributed to his historic and religious themed works. Copley explored the humanity of the slavery issue in his works including Watson and the Shark (1778; also at the NGA! http://www.nga.gov/feature/watson/watsonbig.shtm), The Head of a Negro (1777-1778; http://www.dia.org/object-info/d99ac8e6-eeea-4436-be9c-7e2c797712b8.aspx  and The Death of Major Peirson (1783, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/copley-the-death-of-major-peirson-6-january-1781-n00733). In retrospect then, Benjamin West put out the first call to “encourage American genius” just at the time that the founding fathers were beginning their experiment with self-government but were unable or unwilling to recognize that the flaws in their work would render America spiritually damaged and eventually hurl the country towards self-destruction and civil war.

I have written previously of the bequest of James Smithson, and how that gift was intended to propel America out of its barbarous nature (See Follow the Money- the Legacy Perhaps of James Smithson, http://idiscoveredamerica.com/?p=94. Under Smithson’s will of 1826, his money was given “to the united states of America to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” Arguably, as I suggest in Legacy, it was the knowledge diffused by that institution that made the end of slavery inevitable, since knowledge is the ultimate cure for ignorance and indifference. While the cure for America turned out to be unbelievably painful, it must be recognized that by 1860 the disease was quite severe. All of the compromises which let slavery continue and expand in America, going back to compromises made in 1775, had rendered the country spiritually depraved. Despite all the progress being made in the Arts and the Sciences, the use of forced labor to create wealth had rendered the country unholy, and that evil was a limiting restraint on the creation of true American genius. The end of slavery through the civil war gave America a new chance, and men with foresight were not about to let the moment slip by doing nothing.

William Corcoran was intimately familiar with the Smithson bequest, having worked with Congress on establishing the Smithsonian Institution. He provided expertise on the building of the Castle which housed the entire Institution. As a Southern sympathizer who helped foster the compromises in the 1840’s and 1850’s that made the civil war inevitable, Corcoran had some fault to bear in the ugly matter. His fortune had been made in banking largely by funding the Mexican American War in 1846, which provided for the expansion of the country deemed necessary for the continuation of slavery.  While many in the south were devastated by their loss of autonomy through the Civil War, Corcoran came to recognize that without the burden of the slavery issue which could only divide America, the great days of America lay ahead. In 1869, he found himself on the other side of the civil war with a ton of money, a passion for art, and a new blank canvas to create the Second America as a far better place than the first. His gift of the Corcoran Gallery of Art reflects that hope. Where Smithson used the word “knowledge”, a word which connotes something quantifiable and exact, Corcoran’s vision was for “Art” and for “Genius”, concepts which are exquisite and unquantifiable. The Civil War provided redemption from America’s original sin and perhaps Corcoran’s own sins, and now it was time for grace and return to the garden.

It is with all this in mind that I contemplate again the status of the present Corcoran Gallery of Art and specifically what it means to “encourage American Genius”. As I noted in my last piece, I am quite certain that the art from the Gallery will be fine under the care of the National Gallery of Art. The building which houses the Gallery is of no moment here, since it was constructed after the death of William Corcoran and could not have been a part of his vision. But the concept of “Encouraging American Genius” remains to me as important and elusive as ever. We still live in the Second America. We have had our share of genius yet we remain far from the garden. So how do we now encourage American genius?  Arguably “genius” is not developed at all it just happens from time to time. Maybe the MacArthur Foundation has it right…wait for someone to do something great…call it “genius” and throw money at it. But I am not sure that works either, since if I won a MacArthur grant I would probably change the name of my website to IdiscoveredTahiti.com and never be heard from again. (Note to MacArthur Trustees: That last comment was just literary license. If I were to receive a grant I would churn out the genius stuff like you wouldn’t believe!). William Corcoran may have had a reasonable notion as to what it meant to “Encourage American Genius“ as shown by his help establishing artists of the Hudson River School, but it is also true that much of what he collected were secondary works. That is not a knock on his talent or ideals, but more a statement on the elusive nature of encouraging genius.

An Art School, a Museum, a studio…whatever. The chance of anyone finding and encouraging true American artistic genius remains slim. The job of the artist is to turn out the work; whether it is genius or not is usually judged by posterity which sometimes takes an awfully long time to answer. For every Michelangelo there is a Van Gogh. William Corcoran must have known all this when he gave his gift. Perhaps with his gift he was trying to follow the mold set by Benjamin West in the 1770’s. The modest building he gave may have been well suited to the task of encouraging American genius in 1869. Perhaps the biggest mistake made by the Trustees of the Corcoran Gallery of Art was when they moved to larger quarters in the late 19th century and are now burdened by something large and unwieldy. But then again, the late 19th century was a time of big ideas, and Corcoran liked living large and probably would have blessed the expansion. But 19th century ideas may not be relevant to our times and our William Corcorans should not be tied to them. How we encourage our 21st century American geniuses is a mystery to me. Still, like the accurate compass which gives direction to this website, William Corcoran pointed the country in the right direction. Hopefully his legacy will continue to lead us back to the Garden.

 

[i] In the Zong decision (1783) slaves were thrown off a ship in peril and later claimed as a loss under an insurance policy. Lord Mansfield was called to decide if the jury was correct in ruling for the slaveholders… “that the Case of Slaves was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard.” Lord Mansfield reversed, ruling against the slave holders. History has (incorrectly, in my opinion) somehow attributed the analogy of slaves to horses to Lord Mansfield, which is unlikely given his ruling in Somersett’s case (1772) declaring slavery to be odious and therefore unsupportable on English soil. See my piece on Lord Mansfield at http://idiscoveredamerica.com/?p=154 and the recent biography by Professor Norman Poser entitled Lord Mansfield, Justice in the Age of Reason (McGill-Queen’s University Press, Canada 2013). The facts of the Zong Case were so horrible that the analogy resonated throughout the antislavery movement in England, leading to British withdrawal from the slave trade in 1807. In 1780, John Trumbull painted George Washington with his slave on a horse, equating the two as servants to their master, http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/12822.

[ii] See Follow the Money- The Legacy Perhaps of James Smithson, http://idiscoveredamerica.com/?p=94.

Dedicated To Art

DEDICATED TO ART

Why Jackie Kennedy Saved The Renwick

                                                                                                By Jerry Leibowitz

 In 1962 the building we now know as The Renwick Gallery was set to be razed for a park as part of a massive redevelopment of Lafayette Square across from the White House. Everything was “go” for the demolition except for one thing. The First Lady of the United States was enormously popular and she did not want the building torn down.[1] Why did Jacqueline Kennedy save that building and in the process change our attitude and laws regarding historic preservation? Although there has been some speculation on this subject, I believe the answer is evident if you study the history of the building and the life of the First Lady.

Construction on the Renwick Gallery, built as The Corcoran Gallery, (“The Gallery”) was begun in 1859 and continued to the start of the Civil War when it was left unfinished. It was built to house the personal art collection of William W. Corcoran, who was what we would now call a player in Washington D. C. Although his life would make for a fantastic biography which has not yet been written, he is important to our story because he was very wealthy, very connected and he loved collecting art. He set about to collect great works of art from Europe and America both for his own collection and for the fledgling Smithsonian Institution. His Smithsonian purchases were to be displayed in an Art Gallery in “The Castle” which had recently been built with his approval. His private collection needed a Gallery worthy of his position and taste to display his art in Washington D. C. and he turned to James Renwick, Jr., the architect of The Castle, to build it.

 Corcoran had traveled to France in 1855 and was no doubt influenced by the renovation work on the Tuileries and the Louvre, begun in 1852. These buildings were being renovated in a Baroque revival style which became known as Second Empire, named after the decidedly undemocratic reign of Napoleon III (1852-1870). This style was yet unseen in America but was becoming popular among architects in Europe, especially France. [2]

Corcoran’s chosen architect, James Renwick, Jr., came from a well connected New York family where dabbling in artistic endeavors was encouraged. His father was a Columbia professor of Natural Philosophy (Physics) who dabbled in watercolor and was a good friend of Washington Irving, the gifted writer who also dabbled in watercolor.[3] His mother was a Breevort, a family that owned much of lower Manhattan. For much of his young life, James Renwick, Jr. lived at Columbia, perhaps even in a bedroom in the same building as the College Library, where he spent much of his time.  Although trained as an engineer at Columbia College and displaying his own talent to draw and paint, James Renwick Jr. became a self taught architect. Renwick’s first major commission as an architect was in 1844 for Grace Church, a Gothic Cathedral surviving to this day. While it is assumed he received that commission because the church was built on Breevort land, the beauty and the success of this endeavor lead to commissions for The Smithsonian Castle in 1847 and then to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the 1850’s.[4] In 1852, James Renwick, Jr. married Anna Lloyd Aspinwall, the daughter of the fantastically wealthy shipping magnate. By the time William Corcoran was looking for an architect to design his new Art Gallery in Second Empire style, James Renwick, Jr. must have been the logical choice. Not because Renwick had ever designed a building in Second Empire style, but because he proved to be incredibly knowledgeable and adept in different styles. It is doubtful that there ever was or will be another architect who could design and build Gothic Churches, Castles and Second Empire buildings with the flair and competence of James Renwick, Jr.

Although The Renwick Gallery prominently displays the words “DEDICATED TO ART” on its facade, by 1962 one could hardly say that the hundred year old building successfully fulfilled that charter. Due to an accident of history and the Confederate leanings of its owner, its first use was as a headquarters for a Union General during the Civil War, having been taken from Corcoran by the government of the United States in 1862.  After it was returned to Corcoran, it was used as his Art Gallery for a time until it proved too small for the burgeoning collection, which now included the art he purchased for the Smithsonian Institution. Corcoran’s stuff was moved to the larger Corcoran Gallery of Art a few blocks away. In the first half of the 20th Century, the building was mostly used as a courthouse despite being ill suited for that role.[5]

It remains somewhat of a question as to whose idea it was to put the inscription DEDICATED TO ART on the first Corcoran Gallery. When the Corcoran art collection moved to what is now the Corcoran Gallery in 1897, it again used the inscription DEDICATED TO ART above one of the entrances, as if to own the phrase. Of course, William Corcoran had nothing to do with that second inscription since he had died in 1888.  Yet while the words come alive on the facade of what is now the Renwick Gallery, they seem somewhat hollow and hidden on the newer Beaux -Arts Corcoran Gallery. Still many believe that the phrase had originated with Corcoran owing to his love of art.[6] Of course this may reflect Renwick’s uncanny ability to convince his patrons to use his ideas for Architectural details and then to convince them that the ideas were those of the patron. His patrons tell great stories of the buildings they created; Robert Dale Owen takes great credit for the Smithsonian Castle; Archbishop Hughes for St. Patrick’s Cathedral; William Corcoran for what is now the Renwick Gallery; and Matthew Vassar for the Main Building at Vassar. None of them were architects. They had in common one gifted architect, James Renwick, Jr. [7]

I mention the main building at Vassar College not only in passing but because it plays a critical role in this story.  It was constructed from 1861 to 1865, just after the construction of the Gallery. In the Gallery, Matthew Vassar must have seen a small version of what he wanted for his grand building. Both buildings were built of red brick in otherwise Second Empire style containing prominent mansard roofs and similar ornamental touches.  Unlike the Gallery but in keeping with the Tuileries and the Louvre, the Main Building at Vassar is huge. For a time it was the largest building by interior space in all of North America. It is said that when Matthew Vassar saw a lithograph of the work on the Tuileries, he wrote on this lithograph, “Similar to Vassar College”.[8]  While the main building at Vassar and the Gallery differ on size, one is not surprised to learn that they were designed and built by the same architect.

In 1929, the building now known as The Renwick Gallery was being used as the United States Court of Claims and was presumably showing some age. In that year Jacqueline Lee Bouvier was born in Southampton New York. In 1947, Jacqueline Bouvier entered Vassar College. There are conflicting accounts about whether Jackie enjoyed her days at Vassar. We do know that for her junior year she left to study art in Paris and chose not to go back to Vassar. She ultimately received her degree from George Washington University.[9]

During Jackie’s years at Vassar, there was documented interest in Renwick’s “Old Main”. Rollie McKenna (Vassar ’40) returned to the school in 1947 and included in her continuing studies an investigation into Old Main. She was perhaps the first to treat the building as an important piece of American Architectural history.[10] Old Main was built as an all purpose building including dorms, and there is some evidence, perhaps folklore, that Jackie Bouvier lived in the building during some of her time at Vassar.[11] Whether she lived there or not, the massive presence of that building on campus provides a deep psychological connection to many who pass through Vassar’s gates. Jackie’s trip to Paris, where she could view the Louvre (The Tuileries Palace having been a victim by destruction of the somewhat democratic Paris Commune of 1871) and other Second Empire structures may have reinforced her connection to her old college building. Although she would come back from Paris destined for bigger things, I suggest that by 1951 her connection to the Renwick designed Old Main at Vassar was well fixed in her psyche.

Ten years later Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy became First Lady of the United States. Aside from her obvious natural charms, she brought with her a keen knowledge of art and history which she displayed to approximately 56 million Americans with her unprecedented televised broadcast A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy, which aired February 14, 1962.[12] By then, she had already learned of the plan to redevelop Lafayette Square which included the destruction of both The Gallery and the Dolley Madison house. On February 15, 1962 she walked the Square with David E. Finley, chairman of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. She is known to have said, “Mr. Finley, these buildings can be preserved. And they must.”[13]  John Carl Warnecke, the eventual architect for the restoration of Lafayette Park later speculated that she “became quite concerned when she learned of the proposed destruction of the Renwick building.”[14]

According to the papers of Donald R. McClelland at the Smithsonian Institution, early in his presidency, John F. Kennedy “viewed the gallery from a second floor window of the White House, across a snow covered lawn… [And] decided that if possible the ambience of the building and its relation to the square should be saved.”[15]  While we are not privy to the White House conversations, it may be presumed that at that time John F. Kennedy had somewhat more important things to do than to worry too much about buildings on Lafayette Square. Although there is little doubt that John shared his wife’s involvement with the Lafayette Square project[16], whether as a dutiful husband or based on his own aesthetic sense of what was correct for the area, it makes more sense that in this endeavor Jackie was the team leader. That she too could see The Gallery from the White House, at a location where Presidents no doubt had strolled, and its inscription “Dedicated To Art” commanding her to take action, she must have felt like the right person in the right place to get it done. That the project also included the destruction of retirement house of Dolley Madison, the First Lady whose dedication to saving art and preserving history in the face of invasion is the stuff of legend,  made Jacqueline Kennedy’s involvement all the more certain.[17]

In American architecture, the movement of the day was clearly towards the modern. Ralph Walker, former president of the American Institute of Architects, called the architecture of Lafayette Square “bad architecture…junk architecturally- it is junk!” As to the Gallery he opined “It is just a deplorable piece of degenerating architecture which will cost more to restore and put back into shape, and what are you going to use it for when you are through with it?…We live in an age of bigness. We don’t live in an age of tiny little things…”[18] Douglas Orr, also a former President of the American Institute of Architects agreed that “all those little bits of houses sitting along the street is going to make the United States look perfectly ridiculous architecturally speaking in the eyes of the world. I think that to preserve the old Corcoran Art Gallery or the Dolley Madison House is pure folly.”[19]

It may have been useful for leading architects to point out that The Gallery had failed in both its first use as an art gallery and then as a courthouse. Perhaps it could have been argued that its location would be better served by the plan of destruction and gleaming new office buildings and parks. But the miscalculation of denigrating the artistic and historic value of The Gallery and the Dolley Madison House naturally served to bolster the resolve of the First Lady. It could be assumed that the first lady acted because of her sense of the neighborhood or her appreciation of 19th century architecture in general. Perhaps it was a kinship she felt for Dolley Madison and the place Madison retired to after her years serving her country. I find it more logical to assume that Jacqueline Kennedy’s years at Vassar and then Paris, and her contemplation of the work of James Renwick, Jr., gave her a personal and powerful impetus to save The Gallery. Within a short time the architect John Carl Warnecke was brought into the project by the President and he helped devise a new method of redevelopment in which new buildings were constructed in the character of the existing structures.  President Kennedy and his First Lady adeptly managed the politics. The Gallery and the Dolley Madison House were saved.[20] I think it no coincidence that The Renwick Gallery is now the largest building in the world named after its architect.

When Jacqueline Kennedy saved the Renwick Gallery there were few tools beyond political will that could be used to identify and save worthy structures. Although she was not the first to understand and value the old, her insistence in saving Lafayette Square is largely considered as a forerunner to later preservation efforts. “Member of Congress, in urging the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966, called Mrs. Kennedy’s preservation efforts a model, not only for the preservation in this city, but for large and small communities throughout America. “[21] If it can be said that all politics is local, it is equally true that all art is personal. I do not venture to guess how seemingly innocuous events in one person’s past can change history, but I am left to wonder if the same result would have occurred if Jackie Bouvier went to Smith instead.

So who in this history is “Dedicated To Art?” There was William W. Corcoran, the avid collector and patron who knew the young country would greatly benefit from the construction of an art gallery for the acquisition and display of art; and James Renwick, Jr., whose knowledge and skill made the construction of any idea a possibility and whose creation on Lafayette Square was so admired by some in power that their desire to preserve it changed our view of the world; and Dolley Madison whose legendary action in art and historic preservation set a standard for a later First Lady; maybe it was Matthew Vassar who fulfilled the need to properly educate women, including two in this story, and who built a great building for their inspiration; or Rollie McKenna who noticed something about an artistic structure when others would just walk on by and she elevated it into her own form of art; and, of course, Jacqueline Kennedy who studied and learned her art so well that she instinctively knew when it had to be protected from predators. Since art can be defined as the exchange of inspiration, maybe it is me for writing or you for reading this. Think about it. You decide.



[1] Kathleen P. Galop, Esquire, National Trust For Historic Preservation; The Historic Preservation Legacy of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; Forum Journal, Spring 2006, Vol. 20, No. 3.

[2] For general background on William Corcoran and the Renwick Gallery see Papers of Donald R. McClelland 1857-1968, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Also, Rosalie Thorne McKenna, James Renwick, Jr. and the Second Empire Style in the United States, Magazine of Art  44(March 1951)  and Heather Ewing and Amy Ballard, A Guide To Smithsonian Architecture, Smithsonian Books, Washington 2009.

[3] Watercolor paintings of both Renwick, Sr. and Washington Irving are referenced in the Renwick Family Papers, 1794-1916. Columbia University Libraries. Rare Book, Butler 6th Fl East. Call Number:MS#1063.

[4] One leading researcher on the life of James Renwick Jr. was Selma Rattner whose immense collection of research in preparation for publishing a biography of Renwick is located at the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library Drawings and Archives, Columbia University. Sadly the biography was never written. The Rattner research collection remains an incredible source of general and specific information about Renwick and must be reviewed by any researcher who wants documented accurate information about the subject.

[5] Heather Ewing and Amy Ballard, A Guide To Smithsonian Architecture, Smithsonian Books, Washington 2009 at 88-91.

[6] William W. Corcoran self published a book entitled A Grandfathers Legacy Containing a Sketch of his Life and Obituary Notices of Some Members of his Family Together With Letters From His Friends, Washington, Henry Polkinhorn, printer, 1879. The book can be found at http://www.archive.org/stream/agrandfathersle00corgoog. In a letter to the Trustees of the Corcoran Gallery dated May 10, 1869. Corcoran takes credit for designing the Gallery and including the words “Dedicated to Art” on its facade at p. 32, 33. No mention is made of the architect.

[7] There is barely a mention of James Renwick Jr. in any of the recorded works and letters of the benefactors of his great buildings. See Robert Dale Owen, Hints on Public Architecture (New York: Putnam, 1849). Corcoran’s A Grandfathers Legacy, supra. Vassar, Matthew, The Autobiography and Letters of Matthew Vassar. New York: Oxford University Press, 1916. Complete Works of the Most Rev. John Hughes, D. D., Archbishop of New York Comprising His Sermons, Lectures, Speeches, Etc. Carefully Compiled from the best Sources. Edited by Lawrence Kehoe Two Volumes, New York The Catholic Publication House, 1866.

[8] See Rosalie Thorne McKenna, James Renwick, Jr. and the Second Empire Style in the United States, Magazine of Art  44 (March 1951).

[9] John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Life of Jacqueline B. Kennedy. Website location: http://www.jfklibrary.org/JFK/Life-of-Jacqueline-B-Kennedy.aspx.

[10] See for example, Rosalie Thorne McKenna, James Renwick, Jr. and the Second Empire Style in the United States, Magazine of Art  44(March 1951) 

[11] Alison Lee Cowen, Ghosts of Dorm Rooms Past, New York Times, June 8, 2010. Website location: http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/08/ghosts-of-dorm-rooms-past/

[12] Kathleen P. Galop, Esquire,  National Trust For Historic Preservation; The Historic Preservation Legacy of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; Forum Journal, Spring 2006, Vol. 20, No. 3.

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid

[15] Papers of Donald R. McClelland 1857-1968, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

[16] John Carl Warnecke, The Rescue and Renaissance of Lafayette Square, Journal of the White House Historical Association, Number 13, 2004. Noted to be originally published in White House History #13, 2004.

[17] In the televised broadcast A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy, which aired February 14, 1962, Jacqueline Kennedy pays tribute to the heroic acts of Dolley Madison.

[18] Warnecke, supra p. 43.

[19] Ibid

[20] John Carl Warnecke, The Rescue and Renaissance of Lafayette Square, Journal of the White House Historical Association, Number 13, 2004. Noted to be originally published in White House History #13, 2004.

[21] First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Memorial Tributes in the One Hundred and Third Congress of the United States, U. S. Government Printing Office Washington 1995. Jackie’s Washington: How She Rescued the City’s History by Richard Moe, Leonard A. Zax, from the Washington Post, May 29, 1994. Website Location: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CDOC-103sdoc32/pdf/CDOC-103sdoc32.pdf.